I’ve been missing my friend Mario and the best way to feel cheerful about it was to write about food that reminded me of him, like the day we went a-hunting for fried artichokes in the Ghetto di Roma where the largest Jewish community of 16th century Rome predominately lived, worked and ate fried food!
When Pope Paul IV decided to build a walled community to segregate the Jews from the rest of christian Rome in 1555 he did not predict that this act would not only build a stronger bond in the Jewish culture but also allow their religion, customs and long traditions to not only survive, but to thrive.
While it is true that this tiny 7 acre bit of land in the flood plain of the giant Tiber River made for a very hard and poverty-stricken life, the people were safer inside the wall than out. Even this brand of freedom was enough to allow the Jewish people to carry on their daily lives in accordance to what was inherently important to them.
This form of Limbo lasted for over three hundred years and when the Ghetto was abolished and the Jews were allowed full citizenship, one of their first acts was to build a spectacular and large synagogue, Tempio Maggiore di Roma. It is still the largest synagogue in Rome today.
And wouldn’t you know it, today the “Ghetto” as it is still known, is one of the trendiest places in the city to live where apartment prices soar into the millions. What a change from the narrow streets with its rows of cramped housing where only a patch of sky offered any relief to the former inhabitants of the Ghetto.
As with anything, this bit of history became all the more interesting to me when I actual had the opportunity to visit the famous Ghetto for myself, and in retrospect, who better to do this with than my friend Mario, my fabulous new friend I met while in Italy last year, and the same person I am pining to see today!
If you are not interested in ancient Roman history, the rituals of the dead, the Classics, or an intense historical walking tour of say Rome or Florence, you will still wish you had Mario by your side when walking around Rome. That’s because, while you are walking (following him because he actually knows where he is going) he can tell you some of the beguiling lurid stories of famous historical characters of Rome’s past, while also leading you to the best dining spots whether you are in the mood for a cornetto and coffee or a nice glass of something stronger to wash down your pizza or pici!
We ended up in the Ghetto because he told me I had to try the famous Carciofi alla Giudia (fried artichokes) in the place it was invented hundreds of years ago. I was excited about this since I had attempted cooking this dish (recipe below) just prior to leaving for my 3 month stint in Italy last Spring. The great thing about food is how it can sneakily teach you about a culture and its history without feeling studious, put-upon, or nerdy.
As we walked in and around the Ghetto, Mario gave me sound bytes of information on this building and that fountain, and it made my visit so much more entertaining than if I had just walked blindly and ignorantly through these little alleyways of history.
The one problem was, the restaurant he wanted to go to was closed, and even many of the places on the main strip, Via del Portico d’Ottavia, were also closed. It was that odd time of day when Italian businesses closed up in the afternoon for 3 hours (siesta time) to take a break, relax, and eat some lunch before reopening and working through the evening hours. This resulted in my never getting to try this once common street-food (today elevated to sophisticated status).
Oh well, it would be the perfect excuse to revisit that part of Rome, but for now I will have to be content with how an Irish woman might cook this infamous fried food. The commonality is the method of cooking; deep-frying, and the Irish are a dab-hand at making great fish and chips!
The big saucepan of spattering olive oil is a little scary in a kitchen I can’t swing a cat in, but they turned out good enough to give me a whiff of the Ghetto until I make my way back there in the near future.
You will need:
5 cups extra-virgin olive oil,
sea-salt (large crystals or flakes).
1 – Trim the artichokes: pull off all of the outer leaves until you are at the paler green ones. Cut the top third off with a sharp knife (rub with a little lemon juice to retard it from turning brown). With a vegetable peeler, trim the stalks. Nest press the artichokes face down until you flatten the top and the leaves open like flowers (use force!)
2 – Put the oil in a large saucepan and heat to 300*. Add the artichokes turning up the heat slightly and cooking until they are tender (between 12 to 15 minutes).
Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel and generously season with sea-salt and pepper.
Serve while hot or keep warm in the oven until ready to eat.